Like most travelling vegetarians and vegans, I’m always looking for new fruits and vegetables to try when I’m on the road. Sometimes it’s just the case that the local foods aren’t much different from your hometown, but other times you can be completely surprised by what you find.
When we told people we were heading off on an indefinite travel adventure to Costa Rica, they told us that we’d be eating rice and beans until we were sick of it. Actually, we love rice and beans, but even better, we’ve learned a lot about local spices and discovered a fantastic array of new fruits and vegetables that we didn’t even know existed!
Exploring Farmers’ Markets
How did we come across all of these new and unusual fruits and vegetables? We went exploring at the local farmer’s markets. Many of the towns have a weekend farmers’ market where you can buy organic, fresh, local produce.
We buy nearly all of our food at the farmers’ markets, from carrots to mangosteen. While some of the fruit and vegetables we tried were one hit wonders, others have become a staple part of our diet here.
Yuca (also called cassava)
Yuca is my all time favourite staple vegetable. This white root vegetable is starchy source of carbohydrate, which is rich in calcium and vitamin C. During our stay at an eco-island near to Drake Bay, we went on a tour of the family’s farm. They dug up their yucas and told us that they take around 10 months to grow before being ready to harvest.
Yuca is cooked differently all over the world, sometimes made into flour for bread and sweet cakes, other times deep fried. It can be cooked just like a potato, to make chips or mash. My favourite use for yuca is to make yuca medallions, which have a crunchy outside but a fluffy, chalky inside.
To cook yuca medallions: Peel and cut the yuca into circles about a centimetre in width. Parboil the yuca for 3-4 minutes. Rub oil on a baking tray, toss the yuca in salt and bake for 30-40 minutes until the edges are golden.
Chayotes are a green, pear-shaped vegetable with wrinkles that look like a mouth after sucking a lemon!
The texture is very much like that of a cucumber, though chayotes are rarely eaten raw. Chayotes are usually boiled, fried, baked or even mashed.
Red Bananas and Plantains
There are many varieties of banana in the world and two of the common ones you’ll see in Costa Rica are red bananas and plantains. Red bananas are slightly less common but every now and then you’ll come across them, and they are smaller, plumper and sweeter than regular bananas.
My favourite banana recipes: If you’ve got bananas going spare then try out this vegan banana bread recipe (switch the oil for peanut butter for a nuttier, more nutritious version) and these gluten-free vegan banana cookies. I’m also fond of vegan banana ice cream; freeze bananas and blend with vanilla essence and a tablespoon of nut, oat or soy milk.
Plantains, on the other hand, are much bigger and less sweet if you eat them raw. In Central America, you’ll mostly find plantains fried and as a side to typical Costa Rican casados (plates filled with rice, beans, eggs or meat and vegetables).
To cook plantains: Peel and slice in half lengthways. Heat oil in a non-stick frying pan. Fry the plantains for 2 minutes on both sides.
Many travellers’ choice fruit, rambutans can be found everywhere, sold by street vendors, out of car boots and at local bus stations, and are a great fruit for snacking on. Rambutans are very similar to lychees and longans, in look and in taste.
The yellow rambutans which can be found in Costa Rican markets, sometimes called “wild” rambutans have a sweet and sour taste that’s more like grape.
Mangosteen is one strange fruit. After tasting it at the market, I thought one was enough, but my boyfriend bought a whole bag full because the vendor was just so darn friendly!
Mangosteens have a deep purple rind and a fleshy white fruit inside which is divided the same way as garlic cloves. The taste is tangy and the texture fleshy. Mostly mangosteens are just peeled and eaten, but sometimes they can also be found as a sweet juice.
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Charlie is a long-term traveller, freelance writer and house sitter taking an alternative path across the world. Her travel blog, Charlie on Travel, is about simple, sustainable and socially responsible travel. Follow her adventures on Facebook, Twitter and Google+.